Make way for private space flight

Burt Rutan is letting NASA have it again, this time at the International Space Development Conference:

He said the agency is wasting taxpayers’ money on a deeply flawed space shuttle and paper spaceships that never get beyond the planning stage. According to Rutan, NASA should get out of the human spaceflight business and leave the flying to the emerging commercial spaceflight industry.

Here’s a plan that would be a significant change to NASA’s contracting practices:

[A] space startup called Transformational Space stole the show with a full-size mockup of its proposed shuttle replacement. Although Transformational Space, or t/Space, has chosen not to bid for the contract to replace the shuttle, the company nevertheless hopes to beat big aerospace companies to orbit with a four-person crew transfer vehicle, or CXV, that NASA can use to send astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond. Instead of bidding for the full amount ($500 million) it needs to develop the ship, as the primes will do, t/Space is asking NASA for small increments of development money in exchange for achieving significant milestones. NASA is sitting up and taking notice; the space agency has already awarded t/Space $6 million for developing the CXV concept and building flight-test hardware that Scaled Composites will fly this week. T/Space’s ship differs from those proposed by the primes in one other important respect: it will fly paying passengers. After supplying NASA with the ships it needs, t/Space plans to offer flights to anyone who can afford them.

But there will certainly be risks with private space flight. How will America react?

Space tourism is the prize most of the space entrepreneurs have their eyes on, and one of the biggest points of contention is how to safely fly well-heeled tourists and handle litigious relatives who don’t take kindly to fatal accidents. For Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company started by Richard Branson last year, the best technology is obvious: a spaceship powered by a non-explosive mix of nitrous oxide and synthetic rubber launched from a high altitude airplane. This is the approach Scaled Composites used to create the world’s first commercial astronaut last year, and the one that t/Space also champions. But other companies, including Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, plan to fly passengers on good old-fashioned, two-stage rockets fueled by explosive kerosene and liquid oxygen. That prospect keeps Whitehorn awake at night. If some garage rocket scientist blows himself up trying to get into space, the U.S. government may well put the brakes on the whole industry.

Whole story is here. And here’s Rutan taking on the FAA.